Written by author, Alex Gino
When you read the word censorship, what do you imagine? A parent raising a battle to get a book with references to illicit drugs out of the school library? A principal who prevents a teacher from reading a story with a lesbian character to her class? Maybe if you’ve been involved in recent conversations about homogeneity in publishing, you think of softer, more slippery forms of censorship, like the publishing house that rejects a book by a Latinx author because “it’s not relatable” or the bookstore that decides a book with a Black teenager on the cover won’t sell enough copies to carry.
Those are awful and terrible, and I praise librarians and book champions everywhere who defend books and ideas from the forces of ignorance. But I want to take a moment to focus on two other insidious forms of censorship, the ones at either end of the book cycle from author to agent/editor/publisher to bookstore/library to reader.
Can a reader really censor books from themselves? Absolutely! Every time a reader decides not to read a book, they withhold something from themselves. Which isn’t to say that anyone can read every book out there, but that we are actively engaged in how limited or limitless our reading habits are. And often, these determinations start from the outside. “Oh, that’s not a book for you.” Please please please, if you’ve ever said that, go ahead and never say it again. Books are for all of us, with the possible exception of age-appropriateness — itself a sticky term that has been used to keep amazing books with meaty subject matter out of kids’ hands.
Even if you don’t think the reader is “ready” for the nuances of a given book, they’ll gain something from the experience. It doesn’t need to be the same as what you got from the book. Either that, or they’ll decide the experience isn’t enjoyable and stop on their own. But when we learn young that certain books aren’t for us, those lessons go deep. We learn that certain information isn’t for us and that certain ways of being aren’t for us. We are closed off to entire swaths of the world, and of the worlds that people imagine and create for us.
And then there are writers. No book can be read if it’s not published. And no book can be published if it’s not written. Every time a person with a story says, “Oh, I can’t share that,” they censor themselves. And every time a person with a story says, “Oh, I’m not a writer,” they keep a gift from us. And it’s related to the publishing layers of censorship and selection, because the fewer books with the people and stories like the ones you have to share, the harder it is to believe that your story belongs.
This isn’t to say that those of us who are writing aren’t censoring ourselves. There’s no way we can ever tell everything, and often, we choose to leave out details so that other details can take prominence. And yet, surely some of the decisions we make are subconscious, fed by what we have learned is suitable for books. All of us are regularly deciding what to share, how to share it, when to share it and what to keep private. And I fully respect any person who wishes to keep their story their own. But there’s a difference between choosing privacy and having secrecy thrust upon you.
And censorship is contagious. Every case of censorship at schools and libraries, or in publishing, encourages censorship by readers and writers. We learn that there are ideas that should not be shared.
The publishing industry controls what gets published. Bookstores and libraries control what gets discovered and read. But as individuals, the influence we can have on these institutions is limited. Organizations like the American Library Association and We Need Diverse Books are key in mobilizing groups of people to demand access to information and stories. Support them!
And then, focus on the parts of the book cycle (from author to agent/editor/publisher to bookstore/library to reader) that you do control. Notice what you choose to read and what you leave behind. And that scary thing you aren’t sure you should write? For the love of chocolate, write it! Let’s all tell our stories and listen with full hearts to each other.
Oh, and did you notice that I called it a book cycle, even though it seems to be a line? Well, where do you think we get those writers from? Writers are readers, and what and how we read influences what and how we write. So writers, get reading. Keep reading. Read diversely. And readers? If you find a story in your head, go ahead and play with your own words on the page. Please and thank you. We need your stories!
Alex Gino loves glitter, ice cream, gardening, awe-ful puns, and stories that reflect the diversity and complexity of being alive. They would take a quiet coffee date with a friend over a loud and crowded party any day. They are currently driving around the country in a small RV while writing, visiting readers, and happily watching the landscape change. Their debut novel, “George,” is middle grade contemporary fiction, and has won both Stonewall and Lambda awards.